Don’t Do Underpants Gnome Marketing

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There’s a video clip from an episode of TV that I think about almost every single week while I’m talking content marketing with clients and prospects. I can’t actually show you the clip, because it is full of profanity and features the graphic violent death of a cartoon character, and Seth won’t let me. But let me try to paint you a picture, and I’ll let the words “graphic violent death” do the heavy lifting for me and catch some more morbidly curious eyeballs. 

There’s an episode of South Park where the boys find a cave full of gnomes who have been stealing underpants. They are well organized and efficient, and they have a whole mountain of underpants that they are quite proud of. The boys ask them what they’re for, and a gnome explains that this is just phase 1, and by phase 3 they are going to be making huge profits. So they ask what’s in phase 2. And the gnome gives him a blank stare, and asks another gnome, who asks another gnome, what’s in phase 2? And they make their way up the whole org chart of underpants stealing gnomes, and underpants counting gnomes, and underpants roadmap charting gnomes to get the answer, and of course, there is no answer. The plan on the chart turns out to be 1. Underpants 2.??? 3. Profit $$$.

I think of those dumb little gnomes every single time I hear someone say that the goal of SEO is to increase traffic. They’re not wrong! That’s the goal! But what’s the goal behind that?

I’m not litigating the merits of SEO as a marketing tool. The problem occurs when you take phase 2 for granted. When potential clients ask for my writing help, I always ask them first what they need. Not what they originally intended to hire me to do, but what they need to happen for their marketing. 

When prospects tell me there aren’t enough people buying tickets compared to the number of people Liking their event page, I can help with that. When someone tells me they get lots of work from referrals but need a more reliable stream of fresh leads, I can help with that. But when a prospect tells me that they want my help writing because the site isn’t getting enough traffic, I have to be the cartoon killjoy, and ask “And why do you need more traffic?”

When I ask that, people usually blink, and think about it for a minute, and describe their phase 3, and then work backwards until they’ve mapped out their phase 2 for me. Then we’re cooking with gas, because now I can see the whole picture and how I fit into it. 

I hear things like “because we want to use the free workshop as a lead funnel for our bigger offering, so we need more clicks on the event page to drive more signups“. Or “because I am only getting referrals from local people who already know me, and that market’s tapped out, but I could sell this service anywhere in the country so I need new people to see my website and call.“ or “because my offering is complex, and first time buyers need to see the explanatory copy on the website before they know they need the solution I sell to address their pain point.” I can help them fix all of those things (in three very different ways, and I need to ask a slug of follow up questions first, but now we’re getting somewhere.)

So no, it isn’t meant to be a gotcha question to make people feel stupid and set me up to dunk on their SEO plan and bully them into hiring me. 

The conversations that make me think of underpants start when the person blinks, thinks about it, and keeps on blinking, and then repeats “we need better SEO to increase traffic to the site.” And then just keeps on repeating that in slightly different phrasing. (Sometimes slowly, like I am hard of hearing or unfamiliar with some key English words.) And that’s when I know they have a problem that I can’t fix, because when they say the goal of SEO is to increase traffic, they are using “SEO” as interchangeable with “marketing” and “traffic” to mean “profit”. In other words, they want my help to steal more underpants, and now I have to politely talk them out of giving me money without ever using the word underpants. 

Instead of asking how to get more underpants and assuming that profit will be the inevitable outcome, try these questions instead:

  1. If you successfully get a person to click on your website, what do you want them to do once they get there? What steps need to happen between them clicking and you cashing their check? 
  2. If your SEO plan works beautifully and a site visitor calls you up out of the blue to buy your thing, would you know that’s how they found you? Do you ask? 
  3. When people buy stuff from you, were they already looking for it when they found you, or do they not know they need your thing until you tell them?
  4. If someone has already decided they need the thing you sell, will they buy it sight unseen from the first person they find on Google? 
  5. Does your site offer anything to the visitors who are not ready to buy from you today, but could be a few weeks from now if you kept them engaged? 

(And a final note to demonstrate why “more clicks” is not a complete business objective in and of itself: this page now has a decent chance to rank for the keyword “underpants”, but that fact isn’t necessarily doing anyone any good.)


Nicole Hallberg is a content strategist and blogger with some very specific ideas about marketing and an incredibly juvenile sense of humor.

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